Alzheimer's Diagnosis Often Delayed

Survey: Symptoms Typically Start Nearly 3 Years Before Diagnosis

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 14, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

March 14, 2007 -- A diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease is typically delayed by nearly three years from the start of symptoms, a new poll shows.

Misconceptions and stigma about Alzheimer's disease may be partly to blame for the delay, according to the poll.

The poll included 655 U.S. adults who care for a friend or relative with Alzheimer's disease.

The average caregiver was a middle-aged woman caring for an elderly parent. The group included 266 blacks, 160 Hispanics, and 229 people of other ethnic backgrounds.

The caregivers report that their loved one was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease an average of 31 months after Alzheimer's symptoms started.

Harris Interactive conducted the poll by telephone in January and February for the Alzheimer's Foundation of America.

Not a Normal Part of Aging

Alzheimer's disease becomes more common with age. But it's not a normal part of aging.

The poll shows that 63% of the caregivers said the delay in Alzheimer's diagnosis was partly due to the fact that they thought their loved one's symptoms were just a part of getting older.

That view was shared by 70% of black caregivers, 67% of Hispanic caregivers, and 53% of caregivers of other ethnic backgrounds.

Alzheimer's disease progresses gradually. In its earliest stages, mild forgetfulness may be the only symptom, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

But mild forgetfulness doesn't necessarily indicate Alzheimer's. In fact, most people with mild forgetfulness don't have Alzheimer's disease, notes the NIA.

As Alzheimer's worsens, its symptoms become more obvious. That's when patients or their families tend to seek medical attention for the symptoms.

Early diagnosis means more time to prepare for what lies ahead. Doctors can diagnose probable Alzheimer's while patients are living, but a definitive diagnosis requires examining a patient's brain after the patient dies.

Too Much Stigma, Not Enough Information

Almost six in 10 participants said they didn't know enough about Alzheimer's disease to recognize its symptoms.

That was especially true of black and Hispanic caregivers. Sixty-seven percent of black caregivers, 63% of Hispanic caregivers, and 49% of caregivers of other races said they didn't know enough to recognize Alzheimer's symptoms.

Misconceptions about Alzheimer's disease may partly explain the delay in diagnosis. Stigma may also be a factor.

A third of the caregivers said their loved one with Alzheimer's disease was concerned about the stigma of an Alzheimer's diagnosis. About a quarter of the caregivers said they had their own concerns about Alzheimer's stigma.

Stigma concern was most often noted by black caregivers (22%), compared with 18% among caregivers of other races.

However, black caregivers reported the shortest delay in Alzheimer's diagnosis. On average, black patients were diagnosed two years after symptoms started, compared with 35 months for Hispanics and 36 months for patients of other races.

The poll was sponsored by Forest Pharmaceuticals, which makes products including Alzheimer's disease drugs. Forest is a WebMD sponsor.

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SOURCES: Harris Interactive for the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, "ICAN2: Investigating Caregivers' Attitudes and Needs." National Institute on Aging: "Alzheimer's Disease Fact Sheet."

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